Impeachment news stifles media coverage of an economy that last month produced 266,000 jobs with unemployment holding at 3.5 percent, a 50-year record low. The impact of those numbers and what they say about an incumbent president’s hold on the White House is the subject of this column.
Modeling based on the economy already has experts like Yale University professor Ray Fair, political scientist Alan Abramowitz, and Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, calling the 2020 election for Trump. Zandi qualifies his prediction with some “ifs” that could change the equation like a recession, a dip in Trump’s popularity, or a big Democratic turnout.
Nobody knows how impeachment will play out politically, but Democrats are trying to move on with Speaker Pelosi announcing almost simultaneously with articles of impeachment that she had reached a deal with the White House on passing the USMCA, the reworked Trump trade deal, showing Democrats won’t let impeachment keep them from doing the people’s business.
“There is a route for Trump to win re-election that goes something like this,” says Jim Kessler with Third Way, a moderate Democratic Group: “I don’t like Trump and his tweeting and the way he behaves, but Democrats have gone too far left. That’s his route.” Medicare for All and the Green New Deal should be flashing red lights for Democrats, Kessler says.
The way to counter Trump’s strength on the economy is to focus more on jobs. The economy is not as strong as you would think, says Kessler. The growth has mostly been on the coasts and in a few big cities. Between 2012 and 2016, half the counties in America lost jobs. Between 2000 and 2016, the borough of Queens gained more private sector jobs than Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin combined—and that was without Amazon.
When Amazon pulled out of Queens, people cheered. “A week later, when GM left Lordstown, Ohio, people cried,” Kessler told the Daily Beast. “The economy is going well in certain places, and it’s kind of muddling along for everybody else. There still is anxiety. A Democrat can win if they can persuade voters they can be as good or better on the economy than what they’ve experienced under Trump. But if they think a Democrat is a risk to the economy generally and to local jobs, they’ll hold their noses and vote for Trump.”
For another perspective, I called Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in the Governance Studies program at the Brookings Institution. “I’m not at all despairing,” she said, although she acknowledges having to boost the spirits of those suffering from what she calls “PTSD among Democrats” shell-shocked by what happened in 2016 “and worried it could happen again.”
The economy is a variable, but it is not predictive, and another variable, job approval, matters as much as the economy, “and Trump doesn’t have the discipline to get out of his own way,” says Kamarck.
His job approval hovers in the low to mid-40s, and if he had listened to his advisers in 2018 and talked up the booming economy instead of ramping up immigration and the crisis at the border, he might have blunted the Democrats’ blue wave, she says.
There is not one state that Hillary Clinton won that the Democrats will lose, and the key states that she lost—Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—will return to the fold with increased black turnout. The falloff in the black communities in Milwaukee and Detroit was much larger than the number of votes she lost by, “which means all you have to do is boost the black vote,” says Kamarck.
Democrats took the black vote for granted in 2016, and that won’t happen next year, she says. “Democrats do a lot of dumb things, but they don’t do the same dumb things in two election cycles.” She expects to see a vigorous campaign to turn out black voters in 2020.
Trump is unique among presidents because he has never tried to expand his base. Holding onto his base the way he has would make sense if he had won with 53 percent of the vote, says Kamarck. But he was elected with 46.1 percent, and his base is too small to insure reelection.
Kamarck’s advice to Democrats is to get over their obsession with health care. “The problem with that obsession, In America if you have a good job, you have good health care. Democrats should spend more time talking about good jobs.”
American University history professor Alan Lichtman has correctly predicted the last nine presidential elections, including Trump’s upset win in 2016. “I’m certainly not calling it (the 2020 election) now,” he told the Daily Beast, “If you were basing it on the economy, you’d call it for Trump—but you would have called it for the Democrats in ’68 and in 2000 and in 2016.”
Lichtman’s 13 keys look at a range of factors from internal party fights and social unease to foreign policy wins and losses, and the charisma of the incumbent and his challenger. “Impeachment turns a key, but just one,” he told the Daily Beast, “though it could trigger others depending how it plays out. “
Lichtman points to one piece of history that could be predictive. The next election after the impeachment of a president, the party in power loses. The Democrats lost the election of 1868 after Democrat Andrew Johnson was impeached. Republicans lost the White House in 1976 following Richard Nixon’s resignation. George W. Bush won in 2000 after Bill Clinton’s impeachment cleared the way for Bush to run on restoring honor and dignity to the oval office.
“There are only three examples, and they’re not positive for the party holding the White House,” says Lichtman.